Pushing a puritanical revival, China takes aim at three-decade buildup of prostitution

China's booming sex industry may finally be entering a winter after decades of robust growth, as Beijing wages a harsher-than-usual clampdown on vice.

Suppressed during the Mao years, prostitution flourished after China's economic opening in the 1980s while local governments eager for new business looked the other way and half-hearted police crackdowns barely dented the illicit industry.

But this crackdown seems to be different.

A city police chief has been sacked, and four party chiefs issued open apologies for failing to rein in prostitution on their watch. The national Public Security Ministry was put in command of the operation. Perhaps caught off-guard by an outpouring of public sympathy for the young women caught up in raids and seen handcuffed on state TV, a party-run newspaper ran four editorials in a row to condemn any sympathy toward the illegal trade.

Observers see this as the latest effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping to re-establish the legitimacy and dominance of the Communist Party in the lives of the average Chinese by readjusting the country's moral compass.

"It could be a return to the puritanical state of the Mao era," said Beijing-based historian and political analyst Zhang Lifan. "Xi may want to rebuild the social order in a way that is more culturally conservative."

Ai Xiaoming, a professor at Sun Yat-sen University in southern China, said that the campaign was consistent with Xi's anti-graft crusade.

"This is a moral purge, as the party leadership wants to impose controls on desire in the ideological realm," he said.

Many observers, including Zhang, also have speculated that the sweep may target the power base of rivals of the top leadership, while cleaning up a police system notorious for corruption.

"We all know the sex trade cannot exist without tacit approval from the police," Ai said.

Shortly after the Communist Party took over power in 1949, it shut down brothels and found other work for prostitutes, later claiming the eradication of the industry as a major achievement. The party also imposed puritanical standards, publicly shaming, jailing and even executing people involved in illicit sex.

But those mores unraveled when China began to open up in the 1980s. Underground sex services emerged to cater to businessmen from Hong Kong and later Taiwan — often with tacit approval of local police and governments eager to attract investments. Over time, the industry took root, grew rapidly and spread across China, becoming part of the national economy and employing an estimated 4-6 million sex workers.

Sex services became widely available at saunas, massage parlors, hair salons, nightclubs, karaoke bars and hotels — and formed part of the culture of wining and dining business and political associates.

The southern factory city of Dongguan gained the reputation as the City of Sex — thanks to its thriving economy and ample supply of labor. In a sign of the connections between the sex industry and power, a delegate to China's top legislature is the owner of one swanky hotel in Dongguan that provides sex services, according to state media reports.

Not surprisingly, the latest campaign began in Dongguan, starting with a lengthy expose by state broadcaster China Central Television, aired on Feb. 9, and subsequent massive police raids.

Members of the public reacted with little support for the crackdown. Instead, they ridiculed state media and government officials for moral grandstanding, pointing to a major disconnect between China's Communist Party leadership and the people.

"The jokes are innuendos at the overdraft of public trust resulting from the duplicity of local governments, whose words do not match deeds," Beijing-based commentator Shi Shusi wrote in an online commentary.

Ai, the professor, said the society has become more tolerant of sex workers. "Faced with limited opportunities, they enter the trade to make a living," Ai said.

Dongguan's police chief was fired and by this week the Public Security Ministry said it had shut down 2,410 brothels and arrested 501 people. The ministry said organizers, operators and protectors of the sex trade would be prosecuted.

"For those who are derelict of their duties, we will hold local police leaders and related police officers accountable," the ministry declared.

Some commentators have seen the police purge as linked to factional fighting at the highest levels of Chinese power. For months, rumors have swirled that investigators were closing in on a corruption probe of China's former security czar, Zhou Yongkang, who oversaw the country's vast police apparatus as a Politburo member until his 2012 retirement.

"This is to sweep out all of his forces," said He Qinglian, a U.S.-based Chinese blogger.

Whether or not that's true, Dongguan already is feeling the brunt of the clampdown. Sauna parlors have closed, and sex workers have gone into hiding.

"In the short run, it will be very effective," Ai said. "But in the long run, the sex industry will rejuvenate the moment the controls loosen up. For several decades, the authorities have been sweeping out the yellow but are yet to succeed."